Tag Archives: Nigeria

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.


Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.


This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).


The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.


Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.


The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo


A Global Post-Christmas Stroll


The cover of Walk this World at Christmastime, showcasing a global celebration.

Christmas is over, and today many people head back to work, a little dissipated and not quite ready for heavy intellectual thinking. I myself have a pile of work to get back to, but I’m not really eager to jump from mince pies and cranberry sauce to my promised chapter on police brutality in children’s books. So instead, I thought I’d take a look at a book that arrived in the Christmas Eve post by illustrator Debbie Powell, Walk this World at Christmastime (Candlewick 2015) and extend the holiday a bit more.


Powell’s books try to engage multiple senses, particularly touch.


Powell has previously produced (like many children’s book illustrators) greeting cards and illustrated maps, but her specialty is board books with special features (shiny trucks and animals, for example) and lift-the-flap books, books that encourage a child to interact with the material presented. The theory behind these books is that their multimodal nature will spark increased learning through tactile, as well as visual and/or auditory senses. Walk this World at Christmastime is no exception, being a “Christmas around the world” book that is primarily visual, but includes factual information (written, not by Powell, but by the uncredited—on the front cover—Zanna Davidson and Mary Sebog-Montefiore) behind the multiple flaps on each page. There are 25 numbered flaps (like an advent calendar), but each page also has several unnumbered flaps. The flaps, numbered or not, contain information about traditions in various parts of the world; many of the numbered flaps describe traditional gifts or food, particularly toys and sweets.


The book’s single Jewish family lives in America; there are none depicted in the Middle East.


These kind of books are always interesting to me for the stories that they tell, as well as the stories they don’t tell. European countries get four of the book’s double-page spreads, as much as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America put together. The book begins with the US and Canada, the only double-page spread that nods to other traditions (Hanukah and Kwanzaa); the Middle East (represented by Lebanon and Iraq) is filled with Christians in this book, as are India and Pakistan. The page showing Chinese and Japanese traditions looks, except for the elephants and a couple in kimonos, curiously European (partly because China is represented by Hong Kong, long a British territory). Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are not mentioned in the book at all, even in the places where they are the dominant religions. I understand that the book is representing Christmas traditions, but Jewish people celebrating Hanukah are represented, so it seems odd to leave other traditions out.


Additionally, the fact that the Jewish people are in America is not incidental to the book. Although Walk this World mentions Christians on the Middle Eastern page, it mentions neither Jews nor, somewhat surprisingly, Bethlehem. And this brings me to another observation about this global stroll: it strives for a non-confrontational global harmony that only works if the reader is ignorant of the world. In addition to the absence of Bethlehem, I would highlight two countries that are present in the book, and the pictures that present an idealized picture of holiday reality.


Nigerians leaving towns and cities by the busload for “home” in the poor and rural areas of the country.


The first is Nigeria, which, like several other of the represented countries, is over half non-Christian in its population. Leaving that aside, and the likelihood that Christmas celebrations might be interrupted by insurgents in the north, the two-page spread highlights Calabar Carnival as one of the ways that Christmas is celebrated. The carnival, although it is held in December and includes some Christmas events (such as carol singing) is not actually a Christmas event. While many places around the world do have Christmas carnivals, including some in the Caribbean that are connected with a past history of slavery and rebellion, these are not highlighted (no Caribbean countries are represented in the book), and the Nigerian carnival is relatively new. According to tourist information sites, “Ever since its inception in 2005, the Calabar Carnival has grown from just a state festival to a national brand” (http://infoguidenigeria.com/calabar-carnival/), and the aims of the carnival are primarily revenue generation and job creation, rather than celebration of Christmas.


The Calabar Carnival, in Powell’s book, is part of the Christmas celebrations that take place in this rural Africa.

Even though Calabar is a city of more than 350,000 people, the picture in Walk this World associates it with the rural villages to which urban Nigerians “return” at Christmastime. Most of the global south is depicted as celebrating in the countryside villages and markets, while the global north celebrates in cities and shops. This is a common depiction of the world in “global” picture books written by people from the US or Europe, and it suggests to readers that the global economic status quo, where the global south does the best it can to imitate European traditions despite their lack of access to economic and technological power is both normal and desirable by all.


Anyone can be St. Lucia in Powell’s Sweden . . .


The other picture that stood out to me was from Sweden, showing girls “dressed in white” for a St Lucia day parade. The picture stood out to me for positive reasons, unlike the African pictures: because it is pleasantly inclusive, with Black girls as well as white girls are dressed as the saint symbolizing light in the dark of a Swedish December. Unfortunately, this is a harmony that doesn’t always exist in Sweden. A Swedish department store who depicted a dark-skinned boy dressed as St Lucia in an advert this year was forced to pull it after racist abuse was directed at the boy (http://www.thelocal.se/20161205/swedish-festive-ad-pulled-following-racist-abuse-of-child).


Screenshot of the boy the Swedish department store chose to be among its “Lucias”. Photo by Janerik Henriksson.

Powell’s book does a good job of depicting Europe and the US as racially mixed, but given this and the controversy about the Mall of America’s Black Santa that I wrote about a few weeks ago, it is not an image that white Americans and white Europeans accept as harmoniously as Powell presents it. Walk this World at Christmastime is a lovely book, and I can attest to the fact that pretty much everyone likes lifting flaps to find secrets no matter what their age . . . but “this world” of Powell’s creation is very different from the one we all have to live in.